We have a tendency to think of food as either being calorie dense or not. We avoid (or try to avoid) certain foods because we know they’re full of calories. Pizza, ice cream, fries, chips, candy…all calorie dense. We know this.
(Caution: Science-y stuff ahead!)
What is Calorie Density?
When I say "calorie dense", what am I actually talking about? Calorie density is the ratio of calories, which are merely units of the potential energy in food, to the actual weight of the food. So a food with a high calorie density would contain a lot of calories per 100g of weight (like butter and cookies).
And vice versa: a food with a low calorie density doesn’t have many calories for how much it weighs (like vegetables and chicken breast).
You’ve seen pictures like the one below…the 100 calories of carrots vs. 100 calories of potato chips.
This is simply an image of calorie density.
This is all fine, dandy and looks legit, but...
...We have been conditioned to believe that calorie density is the only thing that really matters with food.
And because we constantly have this image in mind, we often try to substitute lower calorie versions of the calorie dense foods that we like. Just look at all the 100 calorie packs. You can buy tiny packages of cookies, crackers and chips and feel good about eating it because it’s only 100 calories.
But there is also something called nutrient density.
Nutrient density is the ratio of nutrients (vitamins, minerals, fiber, etc.) relative to the total calorie content in a food. So something that is very nutrient dense, contains lots of the good stuff even though it has few calories.
And this is what really matters.
When you only view foods with their calorie density in mind, you miss out on the big picture. Nutrients.
Our bodies need nutrients, not just calories.
When you don’t eat well and choose to eat foods that don’t have many nutrients, you rob your body of the things it needs to work right. If you want to have energy, be leaner, have cleaner skin, reduce digestive issues, think clearer and heal quicker, you need nutrients. And lots of them.
Let’s take a walk around the nutrient block.
Carbs are important and required for optimal functioning. They provide energy and are the preferred fuel for many bodily functions, especially the brain and central nervous system. The best types are the slow-digesting variety found in whole grains, vegetables, fruits and legumes as these are higher in other nutrients and fiber. Click here to learn all about carbs.
Fats are another good energy source. They also help to balance hormones, form our cell membranes, help to transport certain vitamins and form our brains and nervous system. Fats are made up of different types of “fatty acids”, and all of the types are important and have various roles. Being really healthy is associated with eating a variety of fats like seeds, nuts, oils, avocado, olives, and fish. You can learn more about fats here.
Proteins are basically responsible for nearly everything in our body, from our cell structures, to our enzymes, immune system and our body’s communication mechanisms. A diet low in protein will affect almost everything, making you feel really crummy. When you eat more protein, you will not be hungry as much and will have an easier time maintaining a lean body.
The best sources of protein are animal sources like poultry, meat, fish and dairy, but if you are strategic you can get plenty of protein from non-animal sources too, like peas, nuts, hemp, legumes, and certain whole grains. Read why I recommend having the foundation of your diet be the PRO's.
Fiber is found in the unprocessed, slow-digesting carbs like oats, beans, barley, peas, nuts, and fruits and vegetables. Fiber improves satiety, lowers blood fat and cholesterol, reduces the risk of certain cancers and improves your overall gut health. Although fiber is not digested and absorbed, it plays a big role in your overall health.
Vitamins are required for most body processes to function well. Vitamins are natural components in food and are usually found in very small amounts. They help with growth, reproduction, immune system, enzyme function and tissue repair. There are many vitamins (Vitamins A, D, E, K, C, and the B’s), and all of them are important with different jobs. Being low in any of these vitamins can be a big problem. They are found in plenty of food sources, but especially fruits and vegetables.
Minerals are similar to vitamins and support many biochemical processes in the body. They’re found in trace amounts in food, but have some very powerful jobs. Electrolytes (sodium, chloride and potassium) are minerals that affect the electrical impulses of your body. Other minerals affect your insulin response, regulate hormone secretion, regulates your genes, affect your thyroid and helps transport oxygen throughout your body. The minerals are calcium, chloride, chromium, copper, fluorine, iodine, iron, magnesium, manganese, molybdenum, phosphorus, potassium, selenium, sodium and zinc.
(A quick note on vitamins and minerals: It’s definitely more beneficial to get most of these nutrients from real foods by eating a varied diet. But to just cover your bases, you can also take a multivitamin/mineral supplement daily. Read more about supplements here.)
That's a lot of nutrients!
But as you can see, your body needs all of this to function great. If your body is missing any of these things, you could experience so many symptoms like memory problems, acne, shortness of breath, brittle nails, dry mouth, greasy skin, low energy levels, difficulty recovering from workouts, and constantly catching colds.
"This is boring, Megan."
I know this is a bit textbooky, but I’m taking the time to teach you all of this so you realize that a good diet is not just a low-calorie-dense diet. A good diet is one that is extremely rich in nutrients. Food is not just calories. Food is nutrients.
Understanding this was a turning point for me, personally. When I was obsessed with my body image and so focused on being skinny, I would only choose foods based on their calorie density. “Sure I’ll have that box of crackers because they only have 100 calories.” I was horribly unhealthy and probably very nutrient deficient. My body was bloated, my gut hurt, my skin was terrible and my nails constantly broke.
When I learned what food was made of...the macronutrients (carbs/fat/protein are macros) and the micronutrients (vitamins and minerals)...and how each of these components made a difference in my body, I saw food so differently.
I ditched the boxes of crackers and 100 calorie packs and chose nutrient-dense foods instead. And do you know what happened? My skin cleared up, I rarely got colds, I wasn’t so gassy and I had energy that lasted all day.
But the biggest difference was my mindset. Being educated and having this knowledge transformed the way I viewed food. I wanted to eat fruits, vegetables, nuts, seeds, legumes and lots of protein because I knew how it would affect my body.
Instead of dreading food and trying avoid it, I turned towards it and saw every meal as a nutrient opportunity.
Do you see the difference? I really hope so.
Nutrition is a big world, but a little education can go a long way.
Turn towards food. Gobble up all the good stuff, knowing how important it is for your body. Allow your mindset to shift, and for the love of food, throw out those 100 calorie packs!
If this struck a chord with you, I'd love to hear about it in the comments below!
You might also be interested in reading these other related posts:
Nutrition Facts are not helping you! Six reasons why you need to stop reading the labels.
Balance and Moderation: What does this even mean?
10 Nutrition Mistakes You are Probably Making
>>If you're ready to take your nutrition a step further, be sure to check out the Strong Mommas Membership. This online coaching subscription specifically teaches moms how to eat healthy while maintaining a good perspective of food. If you're sick of dieting and need help, click here to learn more!
Megan P. Dahlman
Hi friend! I'm a Certified Strength & Conditioning Specialist, Precision Nutrition Certified Coach, Wife to Scott, and Mom to two crazy boys, Calvin & Peter. I train hard, eat well, rest just enough to keep going, and do my best to maintain a heavenly perspective. I'd love to coach you to do the same. Cheers!
Don't miss anything! Sign up for my newsletter to receive weekly inspiration, tips, links and more good stuff!
Full workouts, videos, tutorials and exercise tips for mothers of all stages.
Practical nutrition tips, recipes, and meal plans for a variety of goals.
Sign up for the newsletter, learn about coaching calls & more.